[Viewpoint] Nothing goes before the truthActivist Kim Young-hwan suffered severe burns from torture by Chinese security authorities. When he was a freshman at Mapo High School, his dream was to become a Catholic priest. He wanted to bring the light of salvation to the world of contradiction and irrationality.
The quiet and thoughtful boy grew up to become a revolutionary instead of a priest. When he was a law student at Seoul National University, he watched the video footage of the Gwangju Democratization Movement and decided to devote his life to overthrowing the dictatorship. In the 1980s, he persuaded student activists and spread the belief that the United States was backing Chun Doo Hwan’s autocratic rule.
The belief that “South Korea was a colony of American imperialism” overwhelmed other fronts of the democratization movements. It was linked to Kim Il Sung’s juche, or self-reliance, ideology and Kim Young-hwan became the godfather of the intransigent ideology in the South. Kim had researched the juche philosophy by studying the North Korean Yearbook, the periodical published by the government, in the university library.
How did the conviction that South Korea was a colony of American imperialism unify the student activists? Factionalist nationalism is inherent in the juche ideology. Factionalists tend to believe that the group they belong to is the absolute best, and therefore, can be hypocritical. The strategy of the juche group was to maximize the factionalist tendency of nationalism and encourage antagonism by defining the United States as the utmost evil.
Factionalist nationalism played a crucial role in overthrowing the dictatorship in the South. However, its role did not expand any further. The activists should have moved on to the democratization of North Korea. Then, their revolutionary imagination would have expanded to the entire Korean Peninsula and brought an era of open nationalism.
But the mainstream activists remained complacent in order to take a vested interest in the South for the last 20 years. And factionalist nationalism spread all over society like a virus. They are small, self-tormenting, selfish, close-minded and shameless. Lee Seok-gi, who had championed juche ideology, has no shame and smiles in public, and Lee Jong-kul is so immersed in factional rhetoric and nonchalantly uses vulgar language, even calling Park Geun-hye of the ruling party a “bitch.”
Kim Young-hwan stands out because he has betrayed his beliefs in the face of truth. When he was confronted with the truth of North Korea, he abandoned his factionalist nationalism. Do you have to remain shackled to your conviction and never betray what you believe in? Well, if the conviction was based on lies, you should betray the belief.
No value can triumph over truth. Facts are sacred. Kim Young-hwan verified three facts. First, he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist states from 1989. Second, he secretly visited Pyongyang and met with Kim Il Sung twice in 1991. And last, he had met many North Korean defectors who left the North between 1992 and 1996 and listened to their accounts.
On Aug. 1, when Radio Pyongyang declared that Kim Young-hwan was a traitor and vowed to punish him, I had dinner with Kim. On the truth about North Korea, he summed it up as “starvation and cruelty.” He said he had no choice but to abandon the belief of the past when he realized that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il’s North Korea was far more cruel and unfair than the Fifth Republic or the yusin (restoration) regime of the South.
Lee Sun-ok, a defector, testified in 1996, “A woman had stolen some radish to feed her children and was sent to Kaechon Rehabilitation Camp. When she cried at the camp out of worry for her children living without parents, she was executed because she did not trust the party and the leader.” When Korea was at its poorest, such cruelty never happened. Kim added that such inhumane incidents do not happen in any poor country around the world but North Korea.
Kim Young-hwan said that the most unforgivable mistake of his life was spreading a pro-Pyongyang tendency among the activists. He may have been following his conscience to promote the democratization movement in the North from the North Korea-China border region for the past 13 years. Kim Young-hwan started from the democratization movement and expanded his domain to the entire peninsula. The torture case has put him at the center of China’s human rights issue. He has completely given up on nationalism. He is walking the way of an East Asian citizen.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chun Young-gi